Three first-ballot choices – Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson -- head the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s modern-era Class of 2021, and if that sounds familiar it should. It’s the third time in the past four years selectors pushed three first-ballot candidates through the doors of Canton.
That’s not a coincidence. It’s a trend ... and an alarming one.
Of the past 20 modern-era inductees, ten -- or half of all finalists -- have been first-ballot choices. And that doesn’t include the Class of 2017 when Jason Taylor, a second-team all-decade pick, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
That surprised everyone, including Taylor.
So what’s the big deal? Do the math. With 10 first-ballot inductees the past four classes that leaves 50 finalists competing for the remaining 10 vacancies. And that's an issue because there's a surfeit of qualified candidates waiting at the door, only to be jumped by others with 20 years of eligibility on the table. Worse, some of those waiting never cross the finish line, disappearing into the senior pool, never to have their candidacies aired again.
Guard Alan Faneca, for instance, was elected in his sixth year of eligibility. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro, first-team all-decade member, Super Bowl winner and member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 75th anniversary team.
Yet he had to wait six years.
The problem? He played guard. If he were a wide receiver, edge pass rusher, defensive back or quarterback he’d have been a first-ballot cinch. But he wasn’t. So he watched others with lesser resumes jump the queue as he waited his turn.
Mercifully, he just got it.
So did safety John Lynch, whose patience paid off after eight consecutive years as a Hall-of-Fame finalist. Once upon a time, Lynch was supposed to be a victim of a Hall bias vs. safeties. Only seven pure safeties were elected in the Hall’s first 54 years.
But now? Now, Lynch becomes the 10th safety named in the past five years (including the Centennial Class of 2020, as well as seniors) and the sixth in the past two. Since 2017 there has been at least one elected every year.
THE CLASS OF 2021
-- QB PEYTON MANNING (Indianapolis 1998-2011; Denver 2012-15).
-- DB CHARLES WOODSON (Oakland, 1998-2005, 2013-15; Green Bay, 2006-12).
-- WR CALVIN JOHNSON (Detroit (2007-15).
-- S JOHN LYNCH (Tampa Bay (1993-2003; Denver 2004-07).
-- G ALAN FANECA (Pittsburgh 1998,2007; N.Y. Jets, 2008-09; Arizona, 2010).
-- TOM FLORES (coach) -- Oakland/L.A. Raiders (1979-87); Seattle (1992-94).
-- WR DREW PEARSON (senior) -- Dallas (1973-83).
-- BILL NUNN JR. (contributor) -- Pittsburgh assistant personnel director (1970-87); scout (1987-2014).
HOW IT WAS CHOSEN
A list of preliminary 130 candidates last fall was sent to the Hall’s board of 48 selectors, who were told to reduce it to 25 semifinalists. The results were announced in November. Another vote was then taken on the 25, with selectors asked to cut the group to 15. That result was announced in early January. From there, the Hall convened its annual board-of-selectors meeting on Jan. 19, an eight-hour, 47-minute marathon conducted virtually by Zoom. Voters first voted on the coaching (Tom Flores), senior (Drew Pearson) and contributor (Bill Nunn Jr.) candidates before addressing the modern-era class. After each of the 15 candidates was presented, a vote was taken to reduce the group to 10. Then another was made to cut that list to five. However, unlike most years, voters did not know the results of the last vote. They were not notified of the five inductees until word began to leak out last week.
Calvin Johnson. No question, he was the best of the three wide receivers. But why the rush? Johnson compiled big figures in nine NFL seasons (a league-record 1,964 yards in 2012) and was an all-decade choice, but how much better was he than, say, Marvin Harrison or Michael Irvin? Each waited three years. Johnson waited one. I’m sorry, but I just don’t get the rush to crown first-ballot Hall of Famers unless you can make their cases by simply saying their names … then sitting down. Mike Chappell of Indianapolis did just that with Peyton Manning, and it was perfect. No need for discussion. Simply ... Peyton Manning. Any questions? OK, next. You can’t do that with Megatron.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, Part I
Actually this should read: Biggest disappointments. Tackle Tony Boselli and safety LeRoy Butler were each in their 15th years of eligibility, which means they have only five left before disappearing into the senior pool. Both made the Top 10, but neither advanced. Boselli has been there before. In fact, he’s been a Top-10 finisher the past five years, and if that sounds like some kind of record it’s because it is. Former Miami guard Bob Kuechenberg was a five-time Top-6 and Top-5 finisher (the Hall cut inductees from a possible six to five in 2007), but not in consecutive years. He was never elected. Then there's Butler. With Drew Pearson’s election, the former Green Bay safety is the only first-team all-decade member (excluding special teamers) from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s not in Canton. That is significant. And it should flummox Butler and his legion of Packers’ fans. To his credit, Butler handled the news with class when he broke it on Twitter last week. "Maybe next year!" he wrote. "It's always a good thing to be discussed with the best to ever play THE GAME!"
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT, Part II
Clay Matthews. It was his 20th and last year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate and his first as a finalist. That made it near-impossible for him to beat the odds. I saw it happen in 2018 with Everson Walls, and he didn’t get past the first cut from 15 to 10. Matthews did, and that an achievement. But, like finalist Richard Seymour, he was penalized because he didn’t excel at one position. He excelled at many, playing inside and out at linebacker, called on to rush the passer and drop into coverage and sometimes used as a nickel defensive end. He accumulated 69-1/2 sacks, which isn’t noteworthy, but this is: His first four seasons the NFL didn’t count sacks. Historian John Turney, who watched film of those seasons, puts Matthews' total at an impressive 89-1/2. The guy played 19 seasons, played in 278 games and led his team (Atlanta) in sacks his final year at the age of 40. He deserved to have his case heard before this. I’m glad it was.
CUTTING FROM 15 TO 10
Five candidates were eliminated with the first vote: Linebacker Sam Mills, defensive end Jared Allen, cornerback Ronde Barber and wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt. No real surprises there, except perhaps Allen. He was an unknown coming into this debate, mostly because he was a first-ballot candidate and a pass rusher with a lot of sacks. In other words, he was Jason Taylor in 2017. Taylor went to the top in one vote. He had 139-1/2 career sacks. Allen, with three-and-a-half fewer (136), did not.
CUTTING FROM TEN TO FIVE
Matthews made the biggest jump, going from nowhere to the top 10. And that’s good. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough. He’s out of modern-era eligibility. Close behind was Butler, a first-time finalist a year ago who couldn’t crack the Top 10. Now he has, and that bodes well for his 2022 chances. Look what happened to safety Steve Atwater. He was a Top-10 finalist in 2019 after failing to reach the final 15 the previous two years. Then he reached Canton last February in his 16th year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate and ... bingo! Next year will be Butler’s 16th year of eligibility, too. Until last year, he and Atwater were the only first-team members of the 1990s’ all-decade team NOT enshrined. Now Butler’s the last man standing. Defensive lineman Richard Seymour, linebacker Zach Thomas and Boselli complete this group, all Top-10 finishers in 2020. Of the three, Seymour is a mild surprise – mostly because I thought he had momentum coming into this vote. Boselli was a disappointment but not a surprise. The Hall last voted in two modern-era offensive linemen in 2013, and I didn’t see how voters would go for Boselli and Faneca in the same class. And they didn't.
ORDER OF PRESENTATIONS + TIME OF DISCUSSIONS
(Members of the Class of 2021 are bold-faced)
1. Drew Pearson (senior) … 28:31
2. Bill Nunn Jr. (contributor) … 30:38
3. Tom Flores (coach) … 27:38
4. S LeRoy Butler … 17:43
5. WR Torry Holt … 11:09
6. S John Lynch … 37:06
7. LB Clay Matthews … 20:14
8. DB Charles Woodson … 16:29
9. QB Peyton Manning … :12.
10. CB Ronde Barber … 8:11
11. T Tony Boselli … 31:51
12. DE Jared Allen … 8:28
13. LB Zach Taylor … 15:50
14. G Alan Faneca … 13:07
15. WR Reggie Wayne … 25:11
16. LB Sam Mills … 20:54
17. DL Richard Seymour … 12:24
18. WR Calvin Johnson … 39:17
1. Prior to this year’s votes, there had been 12 guards in NFL history voted to six or more first-team All-Pro teams. Faneca was the only one not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
2. Drew Pearson gets the Patience of Job award. He was a first-team all-decade choice (1970s) and Super Bowl winner, yet had to wait 33 years to have his name called. The next time you hear a wide receiver complain about not reaching Canton n his first shot, mention Drew Pearson. Then tell him to wait his turn.
3. John Lynch was a finalist eight times. According to his presenter, Ira Kaufman of Tampa, no defensive finalist has ever been considered longer as a Top-15 choice.
4. With the election of Flores, there are three retired head coaches who each won two Super Bowls and aren’t in Canton – George Seifert (San Francisco), Mike Shanahan (Denver) and Tom Coughlin (N.Y. Giants). Add Buddy Parker, who won two NFL titles with Detroit, and you have four.
5. Manning is the second candidate in the past six years of Hall-of-Fame selector meetings to have his named announced with no presentation and no discussion. The other was Brett Favre, a first-ballot choice in 2016.
6. With Boselli still waiting, Jacksonville still doesn’t have a former player in Canton. The Jaguars and Texans are the only teams missing players from the Hall, though Ed Reed spent half the 2013 season with Houston.
7. Nine of the 10 finalists who failed to make the final cut in 2020 were back this year. The only one missing was former San Francisco defensive lineman Bryant Young.
8. The 8:47 meeting was the longest in recent memory and is believed to be a board-of-selectors record. The 2020 meeting – held in-person in Miami Beach – lasted 6:34.
9. Calvin Johnson is the third wide receiver in the last 26 years to be elected as a first-ballot choice. The others are Randy Moss (2018) and Jerry Rice (2010).
10. Denver fans once complained the Broncos weren’t fairly represented in the Hall. And that was true. But that was then. This is now: Dating back to 2017, the Broncos have had seven individuals with ties to the organization inducted (minimum 16 games). They include Manning, Lynch, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey, Steve Atwater Terrell Davis and owner Pat Bowlen.
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE CLASS OF 2022
Good news for Top-10 finishers: Next year’s class is wide open, which means it could – no, should -- be the year frustrated candidates like Boselli, Seymour and Butler move forward. Included as first-year eligibles in 2022 are LB DeMarcus Ware, DE Robert Mathis, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Andre Johnson, WR Steve Smith. QB Tony Romo, LB Chad Greenway, LB/DE Mario Williams and DT Vince Wilfork. I don’t see a slam-dunk in there, but don’t rule it out. Hall voters are gripped by a first-ballot frenzy that could make Ware and/or Mathis the next Gold Jackets.